Can humans handle the psychological challenge of living on Mars?

Survival in space will require more than food, water and oxygen

Credit: Image credit: Flickr/Marc Van Norden

"It's a moment I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. Walking out ... experiencing the sunshine and wind on our faces." That's a quote from Oleg Abramov, a scientist who was among six people to have spent the past four months simulating life on Mars as part of NASA-funded research into what types of foods astronauts traveling in space or living on another planet could eat. The half-dozen researchers on Tuesday left the small dome in which they had been living in a desolate lava field 8,000 feet above sea level in Hawaii. The goal was to recreate as closely as possible conditions on the surface of the Red Planet. But that's really hard to do, even when the research "astronauts" were required to wear their spacesuits every time they stepped outside their dome into the Hawaiian air. Because they were still on Earth, and they knew they were still on Earth. None of them had to worry about oxygen starvation and near-instant death if their space suits were punctured. Abramov said he'll remember for the rest of his life the sunshine and wind on his face after emerging from four months in a simulated environment that was far from the real thing. That's my takeaway from this, not the food experiment. What he said hints at a huge challenge to humans leaving Earth for long stretches or even permanently, a challenge perhaps even more formidable than the many physical challenges yet to be overcome. And that's coping with the psychological and emotional impact of living in a harsh, foreign environment. More than 100,000 people have applied to be one of four astronauts aboard a Mars One ship that is scheduled for a one-way trip to the Red Planet in 2022. How many of these people have seriously considered how they would handle the isolation, the boredom, the loneliness, the deafening silence of living on Mars or elsewhere beyond Earth? The shrieking of nothing is killing me, indeed. They'd never again see a bird fly, smell the ocean, watch a dog run in a field, build a fire, or hold hands in a mall. None of that would exist anymore for Mars colonists. Humans have interacted with Earth in ways that have been encoded in us for thousands of years. What happens to your mind when all of that is gone? I doubt any of the Mars One applicants would go on vacation for two weeks in a barren lava field in Hawaii (except for maybe a geologist), yet they're willing to spend the rest of their lives in a far more perilous and pitiless environment. Good luck with that. Now read this:

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